This morning started off with an assurance that I’ll be making friends quickly in Tokyo: my (accidentally) extra loud alarm went off at 7 a.m. in my first many-bed hostel room of the trip! Despite that I just arrived in Tokyo 12 hours earlier, however, and the fact that I jumped ahead 7 hours from Europe to Asia, I quickly headed off to a tour of Kashiwa, which I scheduled months ago.
Tokyo is the one city in which I didn’t totally narrow my research focus before arriving. So far, my itinerary includes agricultural tours of a few cities that border Tokyo’s metropolitan area, some meetings with agricultural researchers, a coordinator of Japan’s Organic Agriculture Association, individuals involved in Tokyo’s Slow Food organizations, and plans to snoop around some train station rooftop urban farms. I was originally attracted to conducting a segment of my research in Tokyo due to Japan’s low rate of self-sufficiency (~40%), which contrasts rising trends of ‘agrileisure.’ Today’s visit to Kashiwa quickly and powerfully illustrated to me the contradiction and potential, unrealized synergy between Japan’s decreasing popularity of “professional” farming and increasing trends of agrileisure. And, as it keeps happening, I again collected enough material in one day to fill up ten pages of an eventual research paper. I suppose some of the research focus narrowing can happen later….
The term ‘agrileisure’ is an emerging conceptual framework that connects recreation, tourism, and leisure to agricultural context. Two obvious examples of agrileisure are hobby farming and working in a community garden. In Tokyo, there is an increasing trend of city dwellers renting plots of land in the city or nearby rural areas to grow their own produce. There are growing numbers of urban plots, such as those located on train stations and in office buildings, to accommodate this. However, while agrileisure may contribute to a select few city dwellers’ personal well-being, it remains an exclusive activity for people with the time and financial resources. Furthermore, those people that engage in farming for pleasure or household production may be clued into niche social trends and have an exceptional awareness of the complex challenges and consequences of Japan’s declining agricultural sector and high import rate.
Kashiwa, which I visited today, has just over 400,000 inhabitants (in contrast to Tokyo’s 13 million). It’s located in Chiba Prefecture, right on the border of Tokyo. Kashiwa is largely a commuter town, yet food processing industries comprise an important part of its economy. Furthermore, while pale in comparison to Kashiwa’s agricultural predominance during Japan’s Edo period, there is a significant base of residual commercial and hobby farming activities. Given Kashiwa’s suburb status, agricultural history, and greater land availability, the cost barrier to agrileisure is lower than that in Tokyo. Nonetheless, the hobby farmers whom I met in Kashiwa today still conveyed certain motivations for, challenges of, and more general trends of agrileisure that exist in Tokyo and throughout Japan.
I started my day today by meeting the owner of one of the largest farms in Kashiwa. Mr. Someya’s farm has come a long way since he switched from farmer to bus driver back to farmer in his early twenties and his parents gave him 1.5 hectares of land in 1976. Today, Mr. Someya owns 150 hectares of farmland, employs 300 workers, and sells his rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans throughout Kashiwa City. He sells his rice directly to local elementary schools, restaurants, and a popular chain, Italian family-style restaurant; his potatoes to a potato chip company; his soybeans to stores that sell tofu in Kashiwa city and other markets; and his wheat to the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (also known as JA-Zenchu). Mr. Someya believes strongly in the sales and consumption of local food due for health-related, environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural reasons.
When I asked him about the importance of local food, Mr. Someya began by describing how his, and other local farmers’, crops are safer and healthier than imported food or unsourced food in supermarkets because he uses fewer harmful pesticides in production. There is widespread concern in Japan about how chemicals used in farming pose harm to people’s health, yet Mr. Someya feels a personal obligation to help maintains the wellbeing of his community members in Kashiwa. Throughout our conversation, Mr. Someya emphasized how much he cares about people, both consumers and farmers. Indeed, much of Mr. Someya’s life work has gone towards supporting local farmers in Kashiwa.
While Mr. Someya has observed many challenges for farmers in Japan in the past half century, one of his main criticisms is how JA-Zenchu fails to support small farmers. Rather, through a somehow still cheery, bright presence, Mr. Someya explained to me today how Japan’s agricultural union fails to reduce risk for farmers and instead runs like a business, prioritizing profits over supporting farmers. For example, the union only pays farmers for crops the union collected from them after the union a third party buys those crops from the union. The union also rents and sells farm materials, like machines and fertilizer, at a high cost, which is in addition to the union’s membership fee.
Mr. Someya also explained a few other reasons why current conditions for Japanese farmers look bleak. After World War II, the government lowered the permitted percentage of Japanese land that could be used to farm rice. In the 1950s and 60s, many farmers opted to take the government payout and stop farming completely. Furthermore, in the past 50 years, the Japanese government has focused on industry rather than farming, which has increased farmers’ risk, lowered farmers’ potential profit margins, and decreased citizens’ appreciation for farmers. Mr. Someya has been deeply affected by the Japanese government’s and citizens’ disrespect for and criticism towards agriculture. Strong anti-farming sentiments extend throughout Japan and have even been provoked in Kashiwa by a famous television commentators who gave a speech there to disparage agriculture in the face of Japan’s rising industrial economy. Furthermore, Mr. Someya’s children used to be ashamed of their father’s job.
In the past thirty years, however, Mr. Someya has taken concrete steps to galvanize respect for farmers in Kashiwa. Most recently, he’s collaborated with local elementary schools to teach children where their food comes from. Through school visits and invitations to his paddy fields, Mr. Someya has experienced success in changing many children’s opinions towards farmers. But perhaps his greatest success is that his children have now decided to succeed him in managing his farm when he retires.
Mr. Someya’s passion for farming, concern about Japan’s low self-sufficiency rate, and compassion for Japanese citizens has prompted him to do what he can to encourage more young people to start farming. Thirty years ago, in the face of Japan’s unfavorable agricultural policies, Mr. Someya established the Kashiwa farmers’ market. Through today, the Kashiwa farmers’ market has increased the financial opportunities and decreased the social stigma for young people to pursue a career in agriculture.
Recently, other new food networks popping up through Kashiwa have further secured small farmers’ market entry points (that are independent of the controversial way the union sells farmers’ crops). Later during my day in Kashiwa, I visited one brand new farm shop, located in a modest window right next to the city’s main station. The owner of the farm shop opened his store this June with the main goal of supporting young farmers in Kashiwa. While the shop is still in a “trial run” period, he hopes it will ultimately serve as an outlet the help ensure Kashiwa farmers have a secure, consistent income. And certainly, the shop’s central location in the center of an urban shopping center should help that. One other unconventional place local farmers’ have recently been able to sell their crops locally in is a section of a larger grocery stores that essentially functions as a farmers’ markets.
My meeting with Mr. Someya was a surprisingly intense, genuine, and exceptionally informative way to start out my first day in Japan! Furthermore, Mr. Someya’s distict, distinguished perspective created a stunning contrast between my visit with him and my next visit of the day: to the Matsumara’s home.
As I entered the Matsumara’s traditional Japanese-style home, I was immediately overwhelmed with the second warm welcome of the day, along with the fresh fruits and vegetables (in addition to tea and sweets) that kept being piled on the table in front of me throughout my discussion with Mr. Matsumara, his wife, his daughter, and his daughter’s husband.
Mr. Matsumara led a successful career growing flowers for three decades, and he is now approaching retirement. While flower growing may not be the most tradition form of farming within Kashiwa, his daughter’s “retirement” from farming five years ago depicts the lack of opportunity for young people in the agricultural industry in Japan. After 16 years of helping with her father’s work, Ms. Matsumara and her husband switched to a career in real estate. Today, Ms. Matsumara hates to leave her father working alone, yet she purposefully does not help her father in his many greenhouses because she doesn’t want to give him false hope that she will return to a farming career or for him to plant more crops than he can handle on his own. “I have to draw the line somewhere,” she said.
Beyond flower growing, another key part of the Matsumara’s lifestyle and diet is all the food they grow for their own consumption. Right now, the Matsumara’s grow zucchini, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, ginger, and tomatoes (so many tomatoes).
Despite that Ms. Matsumara doesn’t actively engage in farming, she is deeply engaged with local food culture. In fact, one key reason why she stopped farming is due to her distaste for how industrial farming works in Japan and other countries. For example, the Matsumara’s can only buy F1 seeds sold by large agricultural companies, due to those companies’ patents. Furthermore, the corresponding plants’ growth is limited without the use of pesticides and fertilizer sold by the same companies that sell the seeds. While the ~40 of the Matsumara’s tomatoes I ate yesterday were delicious, even they were grown with these seeds that comes from the world’s complicated, problematic system of industrial agriculture. Ms. Matsumara is also very concerned about the use of pesticides in conventional agriculture, the chemicals used to keep foods safe as they are transported internationally, and the ‘organic’ and other labels on foods in supermarkets. For that reason, Ms. Matsumara does not buy any produce that comes from outside Japan. Correspondingly, she is concerned about Japan’s low rate of self-sufficiency, although given all of the household farming operations she knows about in Kashiwa and beyond, she’s a bit skeptical of the low, ‘<40%’ statistic.
The Matsumara family recognizes their privilege in being able to have access to so much fresh, wonderful food that they produce themselves. They have the financial resources to own enough land to house six large greenhouses. Furthermore, Mr. Matsumara has the time, physical ability, and technical experience to do all the farming, although his daughter worries about this in the upcoming years.
After visiting the Matsumara family, I got to see another form of hobby farming in Kashiwa—the Kashiwa ‘Citizens’ farm.’ Kashiwa’s ‘Citizens’ farm is relatively comparable to all the community gardens I recently visited in Budapest, where anybody can apply for a space to rent out land and farm whatever they please on that land. However, unlike the gardens I visited in Budapest, the management and ownership of Kashiwa’s Citizen Farm seems to be problem-free, likely to the Farm’s lack of a community mission, like the community gardens in Hungary. Furthermore, members of Kashiwa’s Citizen Garden must pay a considerably higher rental fee than garden members in Budapest, about 100 dollars a year instead of 1-10 dollars a year, and must provide their own tools and equipment. Regardless, community garden farmers worldwide must have the same surplus of free hours in a week to take care of their garden plots.
Compared to the community gardens I plan on visiting soon in Tokyo, however, Kashiwa’s Citizen Garden’s membership fee is a bargain. Renting a plot on Japan’s Sorado Farm Ebisu, a community garden which is located on the roof of the Ebisu train station, for example, costs over 150,000 yen a year for a 6 square-meter plots, which is over 15 times the price of a larger plot at Kashiwa’s Citizen Garden. I am curious to learn more about Tokyo’s Sorado Farms since I’m particularly interested in the contrast between Japanese youths’ declining interest in farming in peri-urban and rural areas versus growing trends or humatsu nogyo, or weekend farming, or how young people and families in cities are increasingly renting plots of land within and on the fringes of Tokyo to farm for fun.
Japan’s decreasing number of farmers, aging of the current farmer population, and decrease of land cultivated in significantly contrasts growing social movements of young people in cities wanting to grow their own food, better understand the local food system, and gain a physical connection to the natural environment. Can living just a few kilometers outside of Tokyo really make a difference in how much desire young people have to grow their own food? Are trends of ‘weekend farming’ enough to change any significant part of Tokyo’s food system? Furthermore, whether or not Japan’s low self-sufficiency rate poses a threat to its food security, does it reduce its citizens’ welfare in other ways?
There is clearly impending change in Tokyo’s food system—or at the least, its young people’s engagement in food production or understanding of where their food comes from. Today, Mr. Someya provided a nice pearl of wisdom. He said, to make change, there must be three types of people: young people, outsiders, and “crazy [passionate]” people. Young people must be there because they are the future. Outsiders must be there because they have an alternative perspective and understand the situation objectively. “Crazy” people must be there because only passion can drive people to invest the extensive resources necessary to make the change happen. And, Mr. Someya said, “I am the crazy person.”